The UN Inspections in Iraq since the 1980's


Since the 1980ies Iraq has been subject to three major inspection regimes. That of the IAEA, United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

As party to the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty Iraq has always been subject to IAEA safeguard inspections, which were only related to the question of nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)[1]. The IAEA never found any proof that nuclear material was being diverted for weapons grade operations. Nonetheless Iraq was suspected and proved to posses and/or develop nuclear, chemical and biological WMDs, which later became the reason for the establishment of the other inspection regimes. During the other inspection regimes UNSCOM and UNMOVIC had to work together with the IAEA, which made its knowledge on nuclear issues available.


Before 1991

During the 1980ies Iraq was subject to ongoing IAEA inspections, which as said before did not uncover any action circumventing the NPT. The IAEA was only entitled to inspect on declared sites, declarations had to be made by Iraq, and had to give prior notice of their inspections.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran claimed repeatedly to have been attacked by Iraq using chemical weapons. The Security Council was at that point not willing to offend Iraq and took no action. The Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, sent a mission to investigate Iraq’s use of chemical WMD against Iranian military and civilian targets. The use of these weapons was confirmed and the Report from de Cuellar’s mission to Iraq was taken into consideration by the Security Council by Resolution 612, of May 9th 1988, which called upon Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran to cease from using any chemical weapons. The use of chemical weapons was in opposition of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, to which Iraq was party. Additionally, by 1988, the fact that Iraq was developing biological WMD was discussed in Western press. But so far except for de Cuellar’s mission to Iraq and the following condemnation no further steps had been undertaken by the UN.


1991- 1998 UNSCOM

Organisation and Mission

After Iraq had invaded Kuwait and US lead forces, under Chapter VII and the principle of Collective Security of the UN Charter, waged a war against Iraq to liberate Kuwait. After the end of the Gulf War, the International System was in the unique position to create a strong Resolution on the bases of a military victory. Resolution 687, of April 3rd 1991, related to overcoming the consequences of the Iraqi attack: such as the repatriation of captives, restitution of stolen property, compensation of war victims etc. and created a body to investigate the question of Iraqi WMD. The resolution also included a section on the permanent elimination of the Iraqi WMD production and delivery means. The resolution expresses Security Council’s will to destruct or render harmless:

  • Chemical and biological weapons and their stocks, related subsystems, components, research-, production-, development-, support- and manufacturing facilities;
  • All ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 km and related major parts;
  • Nuclear Weapons and usable material subsystems, components related subsystems, components, research-, development-, support- and manufacturing facilities.

The Resolution itself was created under UN Charter Chapter VII as well, which meant that sanctions and military force could be legally used to bring Iraq to comply with the provisions of the Resolution.

Resolution 687 included that the inspections could not only took place on Iraq’s declared sites but also on additional locations declared by UNSCOM itself. Thus a regime of the so called anytime and anywhere inspections was created. The IAEA on the other hand always declared its inspections in advance.

UNSCOM found and rendered harmless various amounts chemical weapons, biological agents and missiles with a flying capability of over 150km. During its operational time it inspected a huge number of suspicious sites, viewed data and files and spoke with formerly responsible staff.



The First and major problem UNSCOM faced was the hostility of Iraq towards its mission. In Saddam Hussein’s eyes UNSCOM was an enemy. This manifested itself in sustained deception, physical interference and bodily threats to UNSCOM staff. A wide spread tactic of Saddam’s followers was to hold up the inspections until possibly either suspicions material had been removed or hidden. Saddam’s Republican Guard was suspected to be responsible for the WMD concealment. Although UNCSOM was independent from Iraq it would have still needed cooperation from Iraq to fulfil its mission completely. The methods Iraq used against UNSCOM were:

  • Withholding, Manipulating and/or distorting information
  • Removal of Equipment before inspections arrived
  • Hiding and non-declaring of weapons and production equipment
  • Manipulation of the inspections themselves
  • Limitation and denial of access to some facilities (Presidential Palaces).

Another tool Iraq used against UNSCOM was its sovereignty. Iraq emphasized its sovereignty, which had been underlined in the preambular clauses of Resolution 687 and referred to the privileges and protections of a sovereign state guaranteed by the UN Charter. Iraq continuously claimed that UNSCOM interfered with its sovereignty, as it had been given the mandate to act freely from Iraq’s will within Iraq’s borders.

Furthermore UNSCOM encountered large difficulties working together with the IAEA as they operated under different mandates and with different working philosophies. The IAEA worked under the mandate of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and was included in Resolution 687, as the Security Council asked UNSCOM  to work together with the IAEA in all matters of nuclear WMD. Different from UNSCOM the IAEA always gave notice before inspecting and assumed innocence of the subject before proven otherwise. UNCOM on the other hand did not give prior notice and assumed the guilt  of the subject until proven otherwise. These different convictions and approaches rendered their cooperation difficult and strained relations.

Finally in 1998 Iraq expelled all inspectors from within its borders, what marked the end of UNSCOM.


2000 – UNMOVIC


UNMOVIC was created through the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1284 of 17 December 1999. UNMOVIC was to replace the former UNSCOM and continue with the latter’s mandate to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological weapons and missiles with a range of more than 150 km). As with UNSCOM the IAEA would again be in charge of the nuclear area, making use of its experience and expertise in this area. Between the expelling of UNSCOM and the resumption of the actual inspections by UNMOVIC on November 27th 2002 lay four years, which Iraq could have used to restart its programme and rebuild it’s destroyed capacities. Resolution 1441 of November 8th 2002 had also given UNMOVIC new powers before it started its mission and required a declaration by Iraq on its WMD capabilities. Iraq handed over its report on December 7th 2002 to the UN. The report only repeated what Iraq had always claimed, that it had no WMDs left after t 1998, and that it had not designed, procured or stored new WMDs since 1998 and that there were no WMDs left.


Main differences to UNSCOM

The mandate given to UNMOVIC was tried to be made even clearer. It included all Iraqi site that had been declared off limits, such as the presidential palaces. It required even stronger the full cooperation of Iraq and a report that would lay out the entire Iraqi WMD programme. On the other hand inspectors were given cultural training in advance to avoid any Iraqi claims of being insulted such as under UNSCOM. Additionally the limit of oil Iraq could export under the “oil-for-food” programme were raised and a lift of sanctions was placed in reach, if Iraq showed full and willing cooperation with the inspection regime. Also the cooperation between UNMOVIC and the IAEA was a lot better, Hans Blix who had been appointed head of UNMOVIC had been the Director of the IAEA during the period of UNSCOM. As another main difference UNMOVIC was given the ability to move Iraqi sources and their families to other countries to be questioned[2].

The strongest difference between the two inspection regimes came into force after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the following American policy. Iraq was under constant threat of an American led invasion would it not fully comply with all measures of the international community. This became obvious through Resolution 1441 in which Iraq was threatened with “serious consequences” and the post 1441 arguments and the climate of the international arena. UNMOVIC left Iraq on the 18th of March 2003 when the US led forces launched their attack on Iraq and has so far not been allowed back into the country. The USA and the UK have their own missions on the ground trying to find WMDs. UNMOVIC’s fate since the changes in Iraq has not yet been dealt with by the Security Council.

Source: The Economist, Nov 14th 2002











Bailey, Kathleen C. 1995: The UN Inspections in Iraq; Lessons for On-Site Verification. Westview Press, San Fransisco.


Blix, Hans: In Blix’s Words. In: New York Times; Dec. 19th 2002


Krasno, Jean E. / Sutterlin, James S. 2002: The United Nations and Iraq; Defanging the Viper. Praeger, London.




[1] The NPT tries to exchange the know-how of peaceful use of nuclear energy for the not trying to acquire nuclear WMDs. To enforce this treaty the IAEA inspects the nuclear energy sources of the various countries party to the treaty, to make sure they only make peaceful use of their nuclear material.

[2] This was actually part of Res. 1441 and not of Res. 1284.

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